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Spending Christmas in the NICU

There is nothing a parent needs more than hope for the future

Turned over yet again, the toy bin lays defeated on the floor. Toys are sprawled out across the living room, but on this occasion, I’m not fixating on how long it will take to rectify the decimation. Instead, one singular toy has attained my focus. It’s a six-inch Cookie Monster doll, whose belly lights up when pressed.

A few yards away, under our glowing Christmas tree, are a plethora of crisply wrapped gifts in shiny paper, waiting patiently for Christmas morning. Playing nearby are my three dark-haired children, still too young to understand the concepts of gifts and Christmas. But if they could comprehend, the acute contrast in celebrations from this holiday season to the previous one would shock them.

The one where my son’s first gift in life was a Cookie Monster doll from a stranger.

In truth, Gift is not the correct terminology, though it has a softer connotation, the proper word would be donation.

Two Cookie Monster dolls donated anonymously to two premature twin brothers.

The day the dolls appeared, the boys were four weeks old. I entered their hospital room and found them, still in their store packaging, sitting by the boys’ incubators. There was no card, nor information, just these brilliant blue dolls with crazy eyes staring up at me.

At the time, I thought what a sweet, albeit odd, gift to give. I couldn’t fathom why someone would choose battery-operated Cookie Monster dolls for these tiny invalid creatures that lay immobile in heated tanks.

I refused to acknowledge we would spend Christmas in the NICU, or that the holiday season was passing almost unnoticed.

Over Thanksgiving, while I was in the hospital on bedrest, as doctors worked to stem preterm labor, my husband took our toddler and acquired a real Christmas tree. He said it was important for her to have some amount of normalcy. She was 11-month-old at the time. I understood the normalcy he sought was for himself. They decorated it together and there it sat in our vacant living room.

In all the commotion that followed, that tree stood un-watered and unloved. By the time I came home from the hospital sans twins, hundreds of pine needles covered the floor.

By Christmas morning entire limbs had collapsed and only the lightest ornaments managed to still cling to the near naked branches. It was a pathetic sight, which hurt our hearts as a stark reminder that there would be no real celebrating this year.

Christmas morning we packed up our daughter and drove to the hospital. Looking around that bare sterile environment, I was thankful for those Cookie Monster dolls. A pop of color in the land of grey and white, they were the only gifts my sons received for Christmas at the hospital. The few gifts we had bought them would remain unopened under a pile of pine needles on the living room floor.

Around the start of the new year, when the boys were strong enough to come home, the dolls tagged along in a box, were tossed into the toy bin, and forgotten.

Life in general was forgotten, as we focused all our energy as a family on the care of our two ailing babies.

Only recently, have we begun to dig out our lives the way the kids have dug out those dolls.

Now, one year later, with Christmas fast approaching, the memories are creeping up at every turn. The tubes, the blood draws, the tests, the PIC line, the blood transfusion, I remember it all. The smell of antibacterial scrub, the location of the bathroom across the hall and the associated painful trek due to my fresh cesarean.

I remember giving passing glances into neighboring rooms, observing the babies on ECMO and speculating who would be released before us.

One day it hit me that not all the babies would make it out of the hospital. I fervently prayed that mine would.

I avoided gazing into the rooms after that.

I remember it all so vividly.

As I sit in the comfort of my warm home admiring that doll, with my three children playing at my feet, I think about the stranger who donated them. Someone who knew it would be many months but that one day my sons would find joy in depressing their belly’s and watching them glow.

I scoop up the little doll and apply a kiss to its head before passing it to my son. I watch as my son bites its ear then drops it, keener to play with a piece of junk mail accidentally dropped on the floor hours ago. I retrieve the doll and sit with it on the couch, stroking his fuzzy blue hair.

Perhaps, this donation was not just for my sons. Perhaps, my generous donator knew there is nothing a parent needs more than hope for the future, hope for the day when their child is capable of biting its ear and throwing it aside.

I’ll never know who gifted my boys that first present, but I do know that every Christmas when I see our glowing tree, when I see my growing sons, I will think about that Cookie Monster doll, and I will think about their first Christmas in the hospital.

Mostly though, I will think about all the families that are just beginning their journey through the NICU.

Weary and broken, the parents of preemies during Christmas.

Maybe I’ll stop by the hospital with a few gifts to pass on to those who need them most, in hopes that one year from now, their children will be dumping them out of toy bins near an over-watered Christmas tree.

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